Do Nothing Congress Gets Something Pretty Good Done

So Congress did indeed pass a big package to deal with pressing, undone business. It’s entitled the Bipartisan Budget Act. And one could call it that, though it would have died in the House if still-Speaker Boehner hadn’t relied on Democrats to get it through.

No one, so far as I know, likes everything in it. But it’s a whole lot better than no bill at all — and not only because the federal government was mere days before defaulting on the debt.

I can’t possibly cover every jot and tittle. Here instead is what I’ve learned about several major issues I’ve blogged on.

Spending Caps

The bill doesn’t eliminate the spending caps that the Budget Control Act imposed. It does, however, lift them for this fiscal year and the next. For non-defense programs that depend on annual appropriations, this will mean an extra $40 billion — the same as the extra for defense.

Most of the extra non-defense money applies to the budget for this fiscal year, which Congress still hasn’t produced. Only another half billion or so will be left for the following year. Then the caps kick in again, forcing cuts unless the next Congress and President agree to prevent them.

On the upside, the non-defense programs will have $34 billion more this year than they would have had with no budget deal. On the downside, they’ll have 12% less in real dollars than they had the year before the BCA first cut and then capped spending.

What this means, in practical terms, is that we can’t hope for significantly larger investments in the safety net programs funded as much (or little) as Congress chooses each year — WIC, for example, housing assistance and homeless services.

Nor for significantly larger investments in a wide range of programs that offer low-income people opportunities to fare well without “welfare,” e.g., education, job training, affordable, high-quality child care.

In short, as CLASP says, the cap relief is “a welcome down payment,” but only that.

Disability Insurance Benefits

The bill shores up the trust fund that helps pay for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits. As I’ve written before, the trustees projected total depletion next year. That would have forced across-the-board benefits cuts of about 20%.

The bill preserves full benefits, with no changes in eligibility standards by shifting money from the retirement benefits trust fund, as many experts have recommended ever since insolvency loomed on the horizon.

This should avert a shortfall for seven years. And, no, it doesn’t “rob Social Security,” as the Heritage Foundation (and other right-wingers) claim.

Some funds to offset the costs of the package as a whole will come from the DI program. These include savings expected from beefed-up investigations to identify fraud, plus revenues from steeper penalties.

The bill also eliminates a long-standing pilot program that enabled staff responsible for processing SSDI claims in 20 states to determine eligibility without an independent medical opinion.

All applicants will henceforth have to have two written evaluations from medical experts, either their own doctors or doctors the DI office refers them to.

The fact that the bill anticipates savings from this indicates that the scorekeepers expect it to result in more denials and/or longer delays in approvals. But the projected savings are very small — about 0.3% of benefits paid.

A small price to pay for fending off cost-reduction measures some Congressional Republicans have pushed for, e.g., denying SSDI benefits to recipients who returned to the workforce and then received unemployment benefits because they were laid off.

The bill also requires the Social Security Administration to test an alternative way of encouraging SSDI recipients to try working again.

Seems like a good idea, but probably won’t reduce the DI rolls by much, since most former workers who make it through the screening process are far too disabled to ever “engage in substantial gainful activity” again.

Medicare Premiums

That Medicare Part B premium spike I blogged on earlier this week won’t occur. Well-off seniors will, as always, have to pay more for the outpatient care and other health-related costs Part B covers.

The rest of the 16.5 million or so who were going to get hit hard will have to pay only the same amount more as they would have if all Part B beneficiaries paid a share of the expected spending increase, just as they do virtually every year when Social Security benefits are adjusted to reflect estimated living cost increases.

The unprotected will now have to pay about $15 a month more, plus an additional $3 over a longer period of time so as to restore general tax revenues tapped to cover the costs of the remedy. Rolling the two together, I figure premiums will increase, on average, by about half as much as they would have without the fix.

Not the End of the Story

So Congress packed up for the weekend, having done what seemed impossible. If no one’s altogether happy — and no one ever is with bipartisan deals — reasonable people on both the left and right seem pretty satisfied.

Need I add relieved that we won’t find out how much damage to our economy and economies around the world an unprecedented default on the federal debt would cause?

Now comes the budget or some equivalent to prevent a government shutdown before mid-December. So no one with an interest in any of the multifarious issues can rest easy. But advocates for programs and services that benefit low-income people should feel good about how much they’ve achieved.

 

One Response to Do Nothing Congress Gets Something Pretty Good Done

  1. […] just passed. Better than a government shutdown, of course — or what we would have had if Congress hadn’t lifted the spending caps. But more a relief from what could have been than a pretty good […]

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